NCAA Tournament 2017: Stock Watch for Bubble Teams at Week 13
Whether a team had been mediocre or stellar for the first two-plus months of the college basketball season, it only takes a few games to rewrite that narrative.
If you had told me two weeks ago that Georgetown or Tennessee will make the 2017 NCAA tournament, I would have recommended that you seek medical help. Now, though, neither one seems like much of a long shot.
At the other end of the bubble spectrum, who could have guessed one month ago that teams like Iowa State, Minnesota and Pittsburgh would be in any danger of missing the tournament? Yet each of those squads posted a losing record in January and has serious work to do in February to get back on track.
Be sure to note this isn't meant to cover every squad on the bubble. For instance, Michigan is smack-dab on the bubble, but the Wolverines aren't worth mentioning in this stock watch after breaking even for the week with a home win over Indiana and a road loss to Michigan State.
We're only looking for the teams that have moved the needle with their recent results.
Stock Up: Georgetown Hoyas
Computer Resume: 13-10, RPI: 53, KP: 57, SOS: 16
Recent Games: W 85-81 at Butler; W 76-73 at DePaul
Position in Monday's Bracket: Last Team In
Georgetown almost pulled "a Georgetown" Tuesday night.
After consecutive wins over Creighton and Butler, the Hoyas were flying high, suddenly showing up in projected brackets after opening the season 10-10 with one good win (Oregon) and one bad loss (Arkansas State). There's still a lot of work to be done, but going 2-2 in remaining games against Villanova (twice), Creighton and Marquette would probably do the trick.
Of course, that was assuming they could take care of business in their other less challenging games, like Tuesday's road contest against DePaul.
Instead of blowing out a team that had lost nine of its previous 10 games—including getting swept by St. John's—Georgetown trailed multiple times in the final 10 minutes and needed late heroics from L.J. Peak and Jessie Govan to escape from Chicago without a devastating loss.
Any road win in conference play is nice, particularly after opening the Big East schedule with four consecutive losses. But those who decided to keep tabs on this game after being surprised to find that Georgetown was relevant again were left unimpressed.
Nevertheless, there is no bubble team more on the rise in the past eight days. Head coach John Thompson III was never going to lose his job, but Georgetown's overnight transformation from dumpster fire to bubble team will at least stop us from doubting his ability to lead these Hoyas.
Stock Down: Pittsburgh Panthers
Computer Resume: 12-10, RPI: 56, KP: 76, SOS: 8
Recent Games: L 67-60 vs. Clemson; L 80-78 at North Carolina
Position in Monday's Bracket: On the Horizon
In the ACC, it's almost impossible to rule out anyone at this point. One-third of the league is in the RPI top 25, more than half is in the RPI top 50 and only Syracuse (102) and Boston College (192) reside outside the RPI top 75. With eight or nine games remaining in the regular season, every team has at least six chances left to impress the selection committee.
Yet the window of opportunity has all but closed on Pittsburgh.
If the Panthers happened to go 9-0 from this point, sure, they'd still get in. That would put them at 21-10 overall and 10-8 in the ACC with a season sweep of Virginia, wins at Duke and Maryland and home wins over North Carolina and Florida State. Forget about the bubble, that's a resume good enough for a No. 4 seed.
However, four of those six would-be marquee wins are in the next five weeks. All Pittsburgh has done thus far is win at Maryland and shoot 13-of-21 from three-point range in the home win over Virginia. Since that upset, though, Pitt has lost seven consecutive games and wasn't even moderately competitive in several of them.
The Panthers almost pulled a fast one on the Tar Heels on Tuesday night, falling by just two points at the Dean Dome. But this is no time for close calls. Pittsburgh needs statement wins, and several of them. Winning at Duke on Saturday is an all-but-mandatory first step if the Panthers are to have any hope on Selection Sunday.
But if we're setting odds on how Pitt's season will end, making the NCAA tournament is just as likely as losing at least 18 games for the first time since 1994-95.
Stock Up: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Computer Resume: 14-8, RPI: 36, KP: 23, SOS: 18
Recent Games: W 99-71 vs. Arkansas; W 68-66 at Oklahoma
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 9 Seed
For the better part of a month, Jawun Evans was a ghost for Oklahoma State. He missed one game due to an injury to his non-shooting shoulder, but he wasn't the same in his first few weeks back. He was a relentless driver and aggressive defender early in the season. And now that he's returning to those roots, the Cowboys are looking better than when they started 0-6 in Big 12 play.
Just take a look at these splits:
Evans Pre-Injury: 27.8 minutes, 125.8 O-Rating, 14.8 two-point attempts, 23.6 points, 3.0 steals
First Month Back: 24.8 minutes, 94.9 O-Rating, 7.9 two-point attempts, 12.4 points, 1.0 steals
Last Five Games: 28.4 minutes, 126.2 O-Rating, 9.8 two-point attempts, 18.8 points, 2.0 steals
Evans has been particularly lethal over his past three games, earning back-to-back-to-back KenPom MVP honors in the process of pushing Oklahoma State's winning streak to four games.
But as I noted on Jan. 17, "It's going to take more than two hot weeks for the Cowboys to right the ship."
This winning streak against fellow bubble-dwellers like TCU, Texas Tech and Arkansas was somewhat to be expected and has them back in the projected field, but can they cement their spot in the tournament this week against West Virginia and Baylor?
For as much as conference records don't matter, Oklahoma State is 3-6 and in danger of falling to 3-8 in a hurry—with the season finale against Kansas looming as a potential ninth loss. Unless the Cowboys score an upset this week, they might need another, longer winning streak immediately thereafter in order to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Stock Down: Iowa State Cyclones
Computer Resume: 13-8, RPI: 51, KP: 29, SOS: 37
Recent Games: L 84-78 at Vanderbilt; L 85-72 vs. West Virginia
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 10 Seed
Iowa State can't seem to get over the proverbial hump.
The Cyclones lost by two on a neutral court against Gonzaga, lost by two at Baylor, lost by four at home to Kansas and lost by one in overtime to Cincinnati. Those were impressive showings against what now rank as the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 14 teams in the Associated Press poll. Those close losses against quality opponents have Iowa State looking good on sites like KenPom and Sagarin.
But all the RPI sees is should have, would have, could have.
After losses this week to Vanderbilt and West Virginia, the Cyclones are 1-7 against the RPI top 50 and 0-5 against the RPI top 25. Factor in the ugly rivalry loss at Iowa, and this team's resume is nowhere near as pretty as the turnover-free guard play it puts on the floor.
There are plenty of opportunities remaining. Road games against Kansas and West Virginia and a home game against Baylor are the big ones, but even the tilts against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and TCU could help bolster the resume. But if the Cyclones continue winning just 14 percent of their games against the RPI top 50, they'll have 13 or 14 losses by Selection Sunday.
The bubble may seem weaker than usual, but that many losses against a strength of schedule that ranks outside the top five in the nation isn't even going to sniff the field.
Stock Up: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Computer Resume: 19-3, RPI: 38, KP: 46, SOS: 115
Recent Games: W 72-56 vs. Southern Miss; W 71-61 vs. Louisiana Tech
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 11 Seed
There's a better than 99 percent chance you weren't watching, but this was a huge week for the Blue Raiders.
On the home front, they won their only game of the season against Louisiana Tech, which is the only other team in Conference USA ranked in the top 100 on either RPI or KenPom. Though it was a home game and an expected win, it was arguably the biggest remaining regular-season hurdle to clear.
Elsewhere, UNC Wilmington handed Middle Tennessee a gift by getting blown out by William & Mary.
On the surface, that might seem like a bad thing, since MTSU's best win was a neutral-court game against UNC Wilmington back in November. However, when there are too many minor-conference teams vying for an at-large bid, it's bad for all of them.
Case in point: Last year, we had Monmouth, Saint Mary's, San Diego State, Hofstra and Valparaiso all begging for a spot in the NCAA tournament after getting bounced from their respective conference tournaments. Had it just been one of those teams, maybe it gets the final spot in the tournament field over Tulsa. But without any clear "top dog" among those minor-conference teams, all five were left out.
Circling back to this season, we entered this past week with only three strong at-large contenders from likely one-bid leagues: MTSU, UNC Wilmington and Illinois State. The first team on that list won its toughest remaining game. The second team lost by 18 to a nine-loss team. And the third team plays a road game against Wichita State on Saturday.
We could be closing in on MTSU's becoming the only viable at-large candidate from the minor-conference ranks, should that become necessary. The selection committee gave the Blue Raiders one of the final spots in the field in 2013 for going 19-1 in the Sun Belt and winning nonconference games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. This year's team beat Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Belmont and UNC Wilmington, so don't rule it out.
Stock Down: Utah Utes
Computer Resume: 15-6, RPI: 78, KP: 43, SOS: 82
Recent Games: L 73-67 vs. Oregon; W 86-78 vs. Oregon State
Position in Monday's Bracket: On the Horizon
Utah might be the fourth-best team in the Pac-12. At any rate, that's where KenPom rates the Utes—well behind Arizona, Oregon and UCLA but a few spots ahead of USC and California. Which makes sense, as they almost won home games against the Ducks and Bruins and put up a respectable fight on the road against the Wildcats.
The problem, though, is Utah's resume doesn't match its play. It has the seventh-best RPI in the Pac-12 and the 10th-best SOS, barely ranking ahead of Washington (85) and Oregon State (88).
Outside of a home win over USC, Utah hasn't beat anyone of value. And after falling to 1-6 against the RPI top 100 after Jan. 26's home loss to Oregon, the Utes are almost out of chances to impress the selection committee.
They still play two games each against California (RPI: 49) and Stanford (RPI: 61), beginning with this week's road trip against those schools. But even winning all four of those games would barely move the needle, as the Golden Bears and the Cardinal are a combined 4-14 against the RPI top 100. The Utes need to win each of those games, but sweeping them would likely damage their resumes enough that it just turns into four wins over teams barely worthy of consideration for the NIT.
Utah has already exhausted its opportunities against Arizona and UCLA and probably needs to win the road game against Oregon on Feb. 16 to have a solid argument for tournament inclusion. Let that one slip away, and even a 14-4 record in Pac-12 play might not be enough to salvage a nonconference schedule devoid of wins over RPI top 200 teams.
Stock Up: Tennessee Volunteers
Computer Resume: 13-9, RPI: 37, KP: 36, SOS: 4
Recent Games: W 70-58 vs. Kansas State; W 87-77 at Auburn
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 9 Seed
There's no official cap on the number of losses a team can suffer and still make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, but 14 is a tried-and-true maximum. Arizona got in with 14 losses in 2008, ditto Tennessee in 2011—each of which had one of the toughest schedules in the nation for that season.
As such, if you wrote off Tennessee in mid-January with a 9-9 record, you had good reason. Yes, the Volunteers played a tumultuous schedule. Of their nine losses, seven came against teams currently in the RPI top 30. But with 13 regular-season games remaining and only a few losses to go before hitting critical mass, it was going to take one heck of a turnaround to finish with a tournament-worthy resume.
Thus far, though, the Volunteers have done just that.
They smoked Mississippi State and stunned Kentucky to become one of last week's "Stock Up" teams. Then they pushed that winning streak to four games this week with a pair of wins by double-digit margins against Kansas State and Auburn.
Contrary to common sense—since Kansas State is in the projected field and Auburn is not—the latter win was more impressive. Auburn has been feisty this season, going 3-0 against the Big 12 (TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma) and generally playing well at home. Moreover, the first three wins of Tennessee's latest streak all came at home. Keeping that momentum going on the road was a big step toward securing a bid.
Even if Tennessee doesn't get in, what a satisfying year it must be for head coach Rick Barnes. He has this program heading back in the right direction shortly after the Donnie Tyndall fiasco. Meanwhile, the Texas fanbase that ran Barnes out of town for chronic underachieving is watching a 9-13 team that is almost certainly headed for its worst conference record since joining the Big 12 two decades ago.
Stock Down: Big Ten
Illinois Fighting Illini: L 71-67 at Penn State; L 57-43 vs. Wisconsin
Indiana Hoosiers: L 90-60 at Michigan; L 68-55 at Northwestern; W 110-102 vs. Penn State
Minnesota Golden Gophers: L 85-78 vs. Maryland
Ohio State Buckeyes: L 85-72 at Iowa; L 77-71 vs. Maryland
Outside of Wisconsin and Purdue on the good side and Iowa and Rutgers on the bad side, it seems like the entire Big Ten has been on the bubble since early December. But the haves are separating from the have-nots, producing more of the latter than the former.
Ohio State has been out of the NCAA tournament picture since losing a home game to Florida Atlantic on Dec. 6. Subsequently beginning conference play with a 0-4 record didn't help matters. But the Buckeyes seemed to be turning a corner, winning home games against Minnesota and Michigan State and eking out a road win over Nebraska.
After back-to-back losses to Iowa and Maryland, though, they're 13-10 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten. They would almost need to win every remaining game to enter the Big Ten tournament in decent NCAA tournament shape.
Illinois has been in a similar boat since losing a home game to Winthrop in November. At least the Illini scored wins over N.C. State, VCU and BYU to enter conference play with a respectable resume. Losing to Penn State may have been the final straw, though. Like Ohio State, they're saddled with a 3-7 conference record and 10 overall losses.
Minnesota suffered its fifth consecutive loss, falling from 15-2 and ranked in the AP Top 25 to 15-7 with work to do. If the Golden Gophers lose any of their next three games (at Illinois, vs. Iowa, at Rutgers), they're in danger of missing the tournament.
And let's not forget Indiana, which was smashed by Michigan and Northwestern this week. Despite great nonconference wins over Kansas and North Carolina, the Hoosiers are 15-8 with a RPI rank of 84. Remaining games against Purdue (twice), Wisconsin and Northwestern should help that latter number, but how many losses will it leave them with?
This might be the year Northwestern finally makes the NCAA tournament, but there could only be four or five Big Ten teams joining the Wildcats.
Stock Up: Syracuse Orange
Computer Resume: 14-9, RPI: 102, KP: 58, SOS: 54
Recent Games: W 82-72 vs. Florida State; W 100-93 at North Carolina State
Position in Monday's Bracket: Not Mentioned
From the beginning of December through late January, Syracuse's John Gillon was held scoreless more times (three) than he scored 15 or more points (two).
Out of nowhere, the graduate transfer from Colorado State had possibly the best set of back-to-back performances by any individual all season. Gillon had 21 points and 11 assists in the campaign-saving win over Florida State and shot 9-of-10 from three-point range against North Carolina State, finishing with 43 points on 13 field-goal attempts with nine assists for good measure.
Put another way, a guy who wasn't even a regular starter until a month ago just averaged 32 points and 10 assists while shooting 27-of-28 from the free-throw line to put Syracuse into the bubble conversation.
But there is a ton of work to be done.
In case you didn't catch it above, Syracuse entered the day with a RPI rank outside the top 100—thanks in large part to an 8-5 nonconference record with losses to Connecticut, Georgetown and St. John's and only one RPI top 125 win (vs. Monmouth). Factor in the ACC loss to Boston College, and that 6-4 conference record only goes so far.
Because the Orange only have one win over a surefire NCAA tournament team (Florida State), and because their nonconference slate was so dismal, they probably need to at least get to 11-7 in ACC play to be in good shape. That means going 5-3 against a remaining schedule that includes two games against Louisville, home games against Duke and Virginia and road games against Clemson and Georgia Tech.
The three-game winning streak keeps us from burying the Orange, but they still have one foot in the grave.
Stock Down: Marquette Golden Eagles
Computer Resume: 14-8, RPI: 54, KP: 32, SOS: 45
Recent Games: L 79-78 vs. Providence; L 86-72 at St. John's
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 7 Seed
The bubble giveth and the bubble taketh away.
Marquette had one of the best two-game stretches imaginable a week ago, winning at Creighton before a home win over Villanova. In the blink of an eye, the Golden Eagles went from a team that desperately needed a quality win to one that moved into the projected field to one with a stellar resume.
But after picking up their two best victories, they balanced the scales by adding their two worst losses.
Marquette's backcourt has been fantastic for most of the year, but Markus Howard, Haanif Cheatham and Katin Reinhardt struggled to get anything going. It was Andrew Rowsey or bust, and his 44 points weren't quite enough.
The good news is the pair of great wins outweighs the pair of bad losses, so the Golden Eagles are still in better shape than they were four games ago. But their net gain was minimal, moving them from somewhere in the vicinity of first five out to last five in.
The schedule doesn't get any easier, either. Marquette plays at DePaul on Saturday and gets a home game against St. John's in late February, but aside from those likely W's, it has two games against Xavier, road contests against Providence and Georgetown and home games against Butler and Creighton. KenPom gives Marquette between a 45 and 55 percent chance of winning five of those six games, and the sixth is the road game against Xavier (29 percent).
There might not be a more coin-flip team on the bubble right now.
Stock Down: Kansas State Wildcats
Computer Resume: 15-7, RPI: 45, KP: 27, SOS: 73
Recent Games: L 70-58 at Tennessee; L 86-80 OT vs. TCU
Position in Monday's Bracket: No. 9 Seed
We usually try to oscillate between "Stock Up" and "Stock Down," but so many bubble teams blew opportunities and/or suffered bad losses that—even after lumping all the Big Ten teams together on one slide—it only felt appropriate to close with back-to-back squads heading in the wrong direction.
On Jan. 21, things were finally looking up for Kansas State. The Wildcats played a putrid nonconference schedule, losing to Maryland in their only opportunity against the RPI top 125. But they got on the board with consecutive quality wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
However, they followed that two-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak. Worse yet, they were three of the four worst losses of the season for Kansas State.
In each of the most recent two, the Wildcats were destroyed on the defensive glass. Tennessee grabbed 16 offensive rebounds. TCU had 14—even though the Horned Frogs didn't miss often, shooting 58.8 percent from three-point range.
This is nothing new for Kansas State, though. Second-chance points were crippling in losses to Kansas, Baylor and Maryland, in which each opponent grabbed at least a dozen offensive rebounds.
Kansas State has now lost six of its last nine games, and dropping nine out of 12 is a strong possibility with games at Baylor, versus Kansas and at West Virginia due up.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.
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